Marine Corps Warfighting: the Best Book about Culture

Culture - Uncertainty - Nonlinearity - Decentralization - Creativity - Focus

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I was going down the military rabbit hole reading books by former Navy SEALs when I encounter the Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 Warfighting. The book describes the philosophy of the U.S. Marine Corps. It's, by far, the best book about culture that I have ever read. Every startup should have this type of publication. I will quote the book's key passages for you to realize the magnitude of the masterpiece. 

It starts by giving a good representation of what culture is: "The thoughts contained here are not merely guidance for action in combat but a way of thinking. This publication provides the authoritative basis for how we fight and how we prepare to fight. This book contains no specific techniques or procedures for conduct. Rather, it provides broad guidance in the form of concepts and values. It requires judgment in application." Like all good organizations, they precise that their culture must evolve to thrive: "Like war itself, our approach to warfighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk becoming outdated, stagnant, and defeated."

The book emphasizes that war is difficult because of the many frictions, uncertainty, and complexities. They use an excellent definition of friction: "friction is the force that resists all action and saps energy. It makes the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible." The book helped me to realize how down-to-earth the army is. Their knowledge comes from real-life experiences, not from academics who lecture birds how to fly. I love that they embrace the uncertainty of life: "The very nature of war makes certainty impossible; all actions in war will be based on incomplete, inaccurate, or even contradictory information. Because we can never eliminate uncertainty, we must learn to fight effectively despite it. We can do this by developing simple, flexible plans, planning for likely contingencies, developing standing operating procedures, and fostering initiative among subordinates.

I was stomached to find the concept of nonlinearity in the book. Read the following quote: "One important source of uncertainty is a property known as nonlinearity. Here the term does not refer to formations on the battlefield but describes systems in which causes and effects are disproportionate. Minor incidents or actions can have decisive effects. Outcomes of battles can hinge on the actions of a few individuals, and as Clausewitz observed, "issues can be decided by chances and incidents so minute as to figure in histories simply as anecdotes."

Did you think that the military was a top-down, centralized organization? Read that: "A military action is not the monolithic execution of a single decision by a single entity but necessarily involves near-countless independent but interrelated decisions and actions being taken simultaneously throughout the organization. Efforts to fully centralize military operations and to exert complete control by a single decisionmaker are inconsistent with the intrinsically complex and distributed nature of war." In line with their perspective on randomness, they recommend decentralizing the chain of command!

Did you think that the military was a non-creative institution? Nothing seems further from the truth: "An even greater part of the conduct of war falls under the realm of art, which is the employment of creative or intuitive skills. Art includes the creative, situational application of scientific knowledge through judgment and experience, and so the art of war subsumes the science of war. The art of war requires the intuitive ability to grasp the essence of a unique military situation and the creative ability to devise a practical solution. We thus conclude that the conduct of war is fundamentally a dynamic process of human competition requiring both the knowledge of science and the creativity of art but driven ultimately by the power of human will."

At some point, I wasn't sure if I was reading a Marine Corps Publication or an Amazon or Facebook culture book. I love their definition of speed: "Speed is rapidity of action. It applies to both time and space. Speed over time is tempoā€”the consistent ability to operate quickly. Speed over distance, or space, is the ability to move rapidly. Both forms are genuine sources of combat power. In other words, speed is a weapon. In war, it is relative speed that matters rather than absolute speed. Superior speed allows us to seize the initiative and dictate the terms of action, forcing the enemy to react to us. Speed provides security." I was amazed when I read their thoughts on being Focus: "Focus is the convergence of effects in time and space on some objective. It is the generation of superior combat power at a particular time and place. Focus may achieve decisive local superiority for a numerically inferior force. The willingness to focus at the decisive place and time necessitates strict economy and the acceptance of risk elsewhere and at other times." Speed and focus equal bold actions. But what if it leads to mistakes? Answer: "Not only must we not stifle boldness or initiative, but we must continue to encourage both traits in spite of mistakes. On the other hand, we should deal severely with errors of inaction or timidity. We will not accept lack of orders as justification for inaction; it is each Marine's duty to take initiative as the situation demands. We must not tolerate the avoidance of responsibility or necessary risk.

Marines' perspective on trust and management is inspirational. They write: "Trust is an essential trait among leadersā€”trust by seniors in the abilities of their subordinates and by juniors in the competence and support of their seniors. Trust must be earned, and actions which undermine trust must meet with strict censure. Trust is a product of confidence and familiarity. Confidence among comrades results from demonstrated professional skill. Familiarity results from shared experience and a common professional philosophy" and "Relations among all leadersā€”from corporal to generalā€”should be based on honesty and frankness regardless of disparity between grades. Until a commander has reached and stated a decision, subordinates should consider it their duty to provide honest, professional opinions even though these may be in disagreement with the senior's opinions. However, once the decision has been reached, juniors then must support it as if it were their own. Seniors must encourage candor among subordinates and must not hide behind their grade insignia. Ready compliance for the purpose of personal advancementā€”the behavior of "yes-men" or "yes-women"ā€”will not be tolerated." Excellent! 

I don't want to quote all the book, but it's an absolute gem. There are so much more you should be aware of. Their takes on management, decision-making, communication are fabulous. Replace war with business and military by startup, and you will read the best book about culture. I highly recommend you buying the book


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